Lithium batteries that power the ubiquitous electronic devices passengers take onboard planes pose an increasing, but little-publicized fire hazard.
Comprehensive data on how often there are problems with the batteries in flight aren't available but experts say that each year, carriers confront several dozen serious, in-flight instances of smoldering, smoking or even burning batteries inside aircraft cabins world-wide.
In the U.S. alone, the Federal Aviation Administration's website lists 17 significant incidents on passenger planes in the past decade, including an American Airlines jet that had a fire in an overhead compartment last September and made an emergency landing en route from Chicago to St. Louis. There were no injuries.
With more than 1.3 billion rechargeable batteries manufactured annually around the globe and many travelers routinely bringing multiple personal devices into aircraft cabins, safety experts agree the potential for trouble is escalating.
Among the senior ranks of Google Inc. executives, according to industry officials, the emerging threat was considered real enough to prompt swift action. The company, these officials said, recently moved to equip jets that fly its executives with portable, fire-resistant aluminum sleeves manufactured by closely-held Highwater Innovations LLC of Johnson City, Tenn.
Dubbed "PlaneGard," they also include gloves, a visor and a system to keep toxic fumes from spreading—all designed to protect passengers and crew from overheating batteries and help extinguish fires by pumping water into the sealed receptacle. Other companies previously offered protective systems, but Michael Gilchrist, a Highwater partner, said "it's certainly a red hot topic now." He said the company is talking to airlines and corporate fleets, adding "we have seen a tremendous amount of attention."
Google declined to comment.
Safety advocates say battery hazards are underreported and few carriers highlight the topic in passenger-safety cards or during briefings by flight attendants. Air France, Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic are among the handful of airlines that have gone the furthest to alert crews, provide protective equipment or explicitly warn passengers about potential risks.
Airliners have been diverted for battery problems, but there is no case of a commercial aircraft crashing due to a battery fire.
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